The Magazine

Conservative Successes

Some domestic policy achievements to be proud of.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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We've stopped counting the number of times we've been told over the past few years that conservatives can't govern. Everywhere you turn, someone is saying that a conservative government is naturally incompetent and naturally corrupt. The idea that conservatives are ideologically incapable of running things is entrenched in liberal doctrine. It's a bedrock article of their faith.

Now it's true that the Bush administration has seen its share of incompetence, negligence, and cupidity. And back when Republicans ran Capitol Hill, it sometimes seemed as though GOP congressmen were competing for the annual Jack Abramoff Award for Excellence in Corruption. But linking these foibles to conservatism is silly. Liberalism is not immune from human nature, either, as the scandal surrounding Democratic Illinois governor Rod "F--ing" Blagojevich makes clear.

The fact is that conservatives govern successfully when they have the right mix of policy and personnel. In 2007 President Bush replaced the generals in charge of the Iraq war and shifted strategy there from force protection to population security. The "surge," led by Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, resulted in a breathtaking change in Iraq. The United States now stands a real chance of seeing its goals there realized. This did not happen overnight. It did not happen by magic. It happened because the president abandoned a policy that was failing in favor of one that might--and did--succeed.

On the home front, for a quarter century conservative policies have been instrumental in fighting inflation and spurring economic growth through lower taxes and free trade. In the 1990s, conservatives promoted successful welfare reform. In this decade, they supported legislation that increased standards and accountability for schools (and we've seen a modest increase in test scores since the law passed). They adopted a plan to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare that has come in under budget, has introduced competition into the system, and enjoys widespread support among seniors.

Not all conservatives supported these reforms. And maybe, in the long run, those who did not will turn out to have been right. Maybe the most innovative aspects of these programs will be repealed. Maybe the programs themselves will prove unsustainable or irrevocably flawed. Nonetheless, right now, both No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D remain serious, good-faith efforts by conservatives to confront the major governing challenges of the day in a manner consistent with our principles.

That's not all. Just off the top of our heads, we can think of three more domestic policy areas where conservatives have made inroads.

Recently the Office of National Drug Control Policy, led by John Walters, released statistics--collected by the University of Michigan and Quest Diagnostics--that ought to brighten anyone's day. Walters's office calculates that there are 900,000 fewer young drug users than there were in 2001. Overall, teen drug use has declined 25 percent in the same period. And the number of people at the workplace who test positive for cocaine is at a record low.

In 2002, President Bush named Philip Mangano executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Mangano has spent the last six years pointing out that the way to reduce homelessness is to give people homes. Experts call this the "housing first" strategy. It works. The most recent data show that the number of chronically homeless declined by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007. It's not an exaggeration to say that President Bush may have done more for the homeless than any of his predecessors.

Meanwhile, serious violent crime levels have declined precipitously since 1993, when municipalities across the country began to adopt conservative, tough-on-crime policies. The decline in crime has been most drastic in New York City, which by 2002 had the same crime rate as Provo, Utah. And it was a conservative, Rudy Giuliani, who transformed New York from a barely functioning drug bazaar into the safest large city in America.

Yes, a lot of these policies have bipartisan support. But that was not always the case. In each instance, the measures favored by conservatives came under attack from academics and liberal interest groups. Those groups argued that such problems couldn't be tackled. They said the conservative approach would only make things worse. They were wrong.

The bottom line is that conservatives have a domestic policy record to be proud of. There have been some mistakes and a bunch of missed opportunities. But, when conservatives think hard about how to confront social pathology, they tend to come up with some pretty good solutions. They may not make the headlines. They may be overshadowed by larger failures. But that's because no problem is ever fully solved, and governing a bustling democracy of more than 300 million people is extremely difficult--as the Democrats are about to find out.

--Matthew Continetti, for the Editors